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Sweet Prairie Birds, Zick Hit

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Where I come from, upland sandpipers are pretty much limited to the grasslands you’ll find around large airports. If they’re even there. This bird has become vanishingly rare in the East, just like natural grasslands. As the habitat goes, so go the birds. It’s refreshing to come to a place where the saucy wolf-whistle of the upland sandpiper can still be heard.Like all grassland birds, uppies (as we call them when we’re excited and blurting) are always looking for a good perch, mostly for lookout purposes. Those shoe-button eyes, placed high on a bony head, don’t miss much. But the upland sandpiper sings mostly on the wing, its Whip Wheeel Yewww! whistle ringing out from on high. A distinctive stuttering wingbeat, a bit like a spotted sandpiper’s, makes it recognizable at a good distance. And yet it melts into the grass as soon as it lands.I almost didn’t recognize this willet in breeding plumage, so used am I to seeing them in drab, unmarked gray winter plumage. He is fine. When he takes to the wing, he waves striking black and white flags.A signature sound of the prairie is the winnowing of snipe—a mellow woop woop woop woop woop, given when the bird is high in the air. The snipe’s outermost tail feathers are narrow and stiff—lanceolate is the term—and the snipe tilts from side to side as he flies, spreading his tail wide. Somehow, he forces air into those feathers as he banks, and their vibration produces the ghostly sound. It’s extremely hard to locate—perhaps the origin of the term “snipe hunt.” Snipe winnow when they’re courting, and boy, were they courting in early June! I think this bird is taking a siesta. Looks like it’s been on that post before. Those white back stripes are a great field mark for a wonderful bird.I’m guessing that tree swallows nest in fenceposts out here, since there seem to be few nest boxes. I would imagine that competition for available cavities is pretty darn stiff. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a prettier tree swallow, in a nicer setting. He glowed like a piece of azurite.
So we're home, and I'm especially glad I "canned" these posts before we left. Everybody's fine except me. I'm getting a fabulous airplane cold, especially enjoyable in the summer. Whiling away the time in JFK for four hours, where every gate was crammed full and every restroom had a line snaking out the door, was like being dipped in a bath of germs from all over the world. My cold might be from Pakistan.

Downloading and editing the hundreds of Maine photos is going to take all week, as the North Dakota photos did. But they'll come. Oh, we had so much fun. I could get used to summer days in the 60's and low 70's, clear, dry air and high white clouds, the keening of gulls and the fresh salt tang of low tide. Ohio, meanwhile, is wrapped in its hot damp, not-so-fresh summer sleeping bag of haze...The birds we saw most frequently? Common eiders. Imagine. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Stick with me, and I'll finish my hymn to the prairies before we go to the Maine coast.

Oh, after the weeklong diet, if you need a hit of Zick, complete with photo gallery, see Joe Blundo's good story in the Columbus Dispatch. It appeared on Sunday, June 24, 2007. I love the HTML tag they gave it: "Bird Lady." Yeah, that's me. It's a good story, treacle-free. Be sure to check out the audio slideshow that their ultracool photographer/media dude Eric Albrecht put together. There are some fresh pictures of Chet Baker, being generally obtrusive, and some really neat shots of me in my natural habitat. Now I know you're clicking. Baker hit!
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